Kyrgyzstan's Celebrity Parties

The revival in political activity in the run up to elections has not resulted in the emergence of strong parties.

Kyrgyzstan's Celebrity Parties

The revival in political activity in the run up to elections has not resulted in the emergence of strong parties.

As Kyrgyzstan gears up to elect a new kind of parliament based on political parties, some analysts have predicted the emergence of bigger political entities based on policies rather than personalities. However, with less than a month to go, it looks like business as usual, with numerous parties fielding prominent politicians in the hope that this will win them votes.

When changes to the electoral rules were revealed in a constitutional draft announced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev in September and duly passed in a referendum on October 21, it was clear that the introduction of proportional representation in place of the old first-past-the-post system would favour more substantial parties. As things stood, few of Kyrgyzstan’s 100-odd parties stood a chance of overcoming the five per cent hurdle and forming a government.

The new constitution approved in October gives the majority party, for the first time in Kyrgyzstan, the right to pick a prime minister, who then nominates ministers.

To stand a chance of winning seats at all in the December 16 ballot, let alone gaining a majority, parties will need to be fairly substantial. The constitution sets a threshold of five per cent of the vote nationwide, and 0.5 per cent in each of the country’s regions as a way of ensuring parties have national rather than local appeal. To achieve this, many would need to formally merge into bigger entities. Under the electoral code passed at the same time as the constitution, parties cannot form ad hoc election bloc.

However, apart from President Bakiev’s attempt to create a ruling party, that has not happened.

Bakiev announced the Ak Jol People’s Party on October 15, saying there was a need for “a new political force, a party of construction, responsibility and action”. The day after he was elected party chairman, Bakiev laid down his powers temporarily, explaining that as head of state he could not participate in party politics.

So far, Ak Jol has expanded by recruiting politicians from other parties rather than by swallowing up allied groups in their entirety.

“There is a normal process of party amalgamation going on, and it only can be welcomed,” said Elmira Ibraimova, Ak Jol’s deputy chairperson.

The opposition, meanwhile, remains in at least three camps. Ak-Shumkar, which emerged in April 2007 out of earlier opposition formations, announced plans to team up with the older Ata-Meken party in late October. The new entity has taken the name Ata-Meken, and has gone on to present a list of candidates to Kyrgyzstan’s election commission.

Meanwhile, Ar Namys headed by Felix Kulov, Bakiev’s former prime minister and now one of his fiercest opponents, is likely to go its own way. It has agreed a kind of mutual support pact with Ata-Meken, but they will not form a closer relationship.

The Social Democrats, who also count as an opposition party despite having Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev as their leader, will field candidates separately.

Political analyst Nur Omarov believes the different opposition parties have yet to recover from events in April this year which left them in disarray. Amid mounting tension between the Bakiev administration and the opposition, the more moderate Movement for Reforms aligned itself with Kulov’s United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan for a rally that was broken up just over a week later.

This confrontational strategy failed and Bakiev was not unseated, and the opposition has struggled to regroup and find new tactics since then.

“The leaders of certain parties and movements have been compromised, particularly after the April events, and this serves to keep these opposition parties away from one another,” Omarov told IWPR.

Omurbek Tekebaev, who heads the Ata-Meken party, agreed that Kyrgyzstan’s parties were reluctant to join forces.

“Many party bosses don’t want… to create new parties to suit the moment,” he said. “They would have to forget the history of their party, the history of a glorious struggle against authoritarianism, and amalgamate with someone else just to get into parliament. And the voters might not like it, either.”

By the time this report was published, 12 of the 50 parties that had applied to stand in the election had been approved by the poll commission.

Under the rules of proportional representation, each party can nominate up to 100 candidates, and seats will then be allocated from the top of the list downwards according to well it fares at the polls.

However, the Central Electoral Commission has ruled that only the top five names on each party’s list will appear on the ballot papers, for reasons of space.

The result has been to encourage parties to focus their campaigns on big-name politicians and public figures rather than on policies.

Thus, Bakiev’s Ak Jol has Cholpon Baekova, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Court, as number one in a top five that also includes State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov and Vladimir Nifadyev, head of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University.

Apart from Tekebaev, the new, consolidated Ata-Meken has noted opposition parliamentarians Kubatbek Baybolov and Temir Sariev, while the Social Democrats have a constellation of well-known figures including ex-parliamentary deputy Omurbek Babanov and vice-president of the American University in Central Asia Bakyt Beshimov.

Kulov and his deputy Emil Aliev are leading contenders in the Ar-Namys, which also has Anvar Artykov and Valery Dil, leading members of the ethnic Uzbek and German communities, respectively.

According to Omarov, that leaves voters having to choose between individual politicians, rather than clearly-defined political directions.

“The voters will vote for personalities. In the forthcoming election, it’s a serious problem that what people want is to see new faces and new politicians, whereas what we’ll get is politicians who have been around for the past 15 years,” he said.

“As for the programmes of the political movements, they are all much of a muchness. They all make appeals to the people and say they’ll protect them. Just a set of hackneyed phrases with no real content.”

Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, who has been placed number five on the list of the moderate opposition party Asaba, agreed that personalities – and money too – would count.

“Reputation and money are still needed to win elections in our country. The top-five lists consist of either the wealthy or the famous,” he said. “The parties are bringing in well-known, tried-and-tested politicians like me to win votes. I describe them as the ‘clapped-out steam engines’ that will pull the young, fresh politicians in their train.”

Sariev, one of the leaders of Ata-Meken, agrees that there is a point to using high-profile politicians as long as they form part of a good team.

“People need to have confidence and they’re looking for leaders,” he said. “They’ll vote wholeheartedly for anyone in whom they have faith. In addition, since these are party-based elections they will be voting for a list and they’ll want to see a team whose members complement each other.”

As debate rages about the justice of imposing a regional as well as national threshold of votes which parties need to surpass in order to win seats, politicians are divided on how much of a role regionalism will play in this election.

“People don’t have time to study the [campaign] platforms of all the parties. Our voters may forget the one party’s programme the moment they read another. So the defining factor will be regionalism,” said Jenishbek Nazaraliev, who is number one on the opposition Asaba party’s list.

Sariev disagrees, saying, “I don’t think the regional factor will play a significant role. Sociological surveys demonstrate that people gain more confidence in the opposition parties after they merge. That gives me hope that we will move away from the regional factor and pay more attention to personalities and teams”.

Edil Baisalov, a well-known opposition figure who has been nominated by the Social Democratic Party, is also optimistic about the forthcoming ballot.

“There’s rapid political development under way, which is gratifying,” he said. “It won’t be an ideal election, but it will offer important lessons for how to make this system take root and establish itself. It’s important for parties to galvanise the voters.”

He concluded, “I think it will strengthen democracy and help make civil society more cohesive.”

Yryskeldi Kadykeev is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Tolkunbek Turdubaev, a BBC correspondent in Bishkek, also contributed to this report.

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